Do I Want to be in This Relationship? Part II
In my last blog entry I talked about how to use your vision for your future as modified by the reality of a prospective partner to discern whether you would like to choose to continue a relationship. In this entry I will take a more present-moment oriented approach to the issue of discernment in relationship. If you’d like, you can open and print this .pdf flow-chart and follow along as you read: Relationship Discernment Tool.
1. Identify Relationship Needs
At the meta-level, one way of thinking about relationships and why we choose to be in them, is that we choose relationships that meet our needs and help us to feel good about ourselves and our lives. I think attending to needs is helpful because our assessment of whether our needs are getting met helps determine our relationship satisfaction or the lack thereof.
In order to engage in this form of relationship discernment you need to start with an awareness of your relationship needs. I commonly refer my clients to the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) Needs List but make sure you are focused on the top needs that must be met in a relationship. If you have been having strong feelings in the relationship, good or bad, it may help to know that emotions indicate whether our needs are getting met or not. When you think about moments of strong emotion in this relationship, make sure you have whatever needs were or were not being met on your needs list.
If your relationship is in distress or if you have been going through a rough patch recently, you may have unconsciously listed more of the needs that are not getting met. The way human attention works, we can more easily remember sad things when we are sad and happy things when we are happy, so if you want to be fair as you enter a discernment about your relationship, you may want to walk away, watch a comedy or do something fun, and come back and see if you may have left out any important needs of yours that are getting met.
Consider one need at a time and use the flow chart to ask yourself questions about that need.
2. Is This Relationship Meeting This Need?
If the relationship is meeting your needs, great! Stop here. But most likely, because as mentioned previously we can’t order perfect partners in a catalog, there are at least some needs that are only partially met or not being met. Go back to the top and start over with a new need.
3. Can I Accept That?
The answers to this question are much more complex than “Yes” and “No” and I will get into those in a moment. Before I do though, I’d like to point to some other questions that will help you select among the answers to this question that follow:
- If my relationship is not meeting the need entirely is it at least meeting that need in some ways?
- If the relationship is not meeting the need now, has it done so in the past?
- Are there some extenuating circumstances that currently prevent the relationship from meeting my needs?
- Am I preventing this relationship from meeting my needs?
- Am I confusing unavoidable life pain (e.g., illness) as a signal that the relationship isn’t meeting my needs (e.g., this is a bad relationship)?
Answers to these questions and others may influence whether you can accept the fact that the relationship is not currently meeting your needs.
4. Yes. Great!
If you can accept that the relationship is not meeting this need, that’s great. Monitor yourself to make sure that you really do have as much Zen-like detachment from your emotional needs as you believe you have or the unmet need may turn into resentment and become fuel for passive aggressive behavior (more about that below). If you really can accept that this relationship won’t meet this particular need, I hope that it is meeting other needs.
5. No. And I am resigned to that and will withdraw over time.
While I don’t advocate this decision, I like to include it on my list. It is an option that people can take. Often when people in long-term relationships (here I am referring to relationships that are about a decade old or longer) come into therapy and they report that the presenting problems have been present for many years, one or the other has probably made the choice to be resigned for a significant portion of the relationship. This option often fuels emotional, physical, and sexual distance and may lead to passive-aggressive behavior. You may make this choice but therapy with me will not help you to improve your relationship if this is the choice you have made.
6. No. But I can meet this need with other relationships.
You wanted your partner to meet your need for a shared hobby and now you are going to try to get a hobby buddy to meet that need instead. If you are monogamous, you may want to make sure that if you are attracted to your hobby buddy, the intimacy of the shared hobby won’t become a source of romantic or sexual attraction. However, this is over-all a mature and viable option. It requires recognizing that no one person can meet all of our needs. We let our partner off the hook, we expand our community of friends, and we get our needs filled and keep ourselves vibrant and alive. You may also at least want your partner to know some of the basic vocabulary and significant events in your hobby even if you have a hobby buddy. Check in periodically to make sure that this unmet need is now being met with other relationships.
7. No, But I will try to adapt so that I can accept this in the future.
Sometimes, we know that it is more mature and helpful for our relationship for us to let go of an emotional need or any expectation. Unfortunately, knowing that and doing it are two separate things (more on the difference between knowing and doing in this blog entry about Relationship Skills). So, it is acceptable and mature to acknowledge that despite your thoughts or your values, you actually don’t think you are going to be able to just let this go but you want to become able to. Maybe you talk about this with supportive friends, in individual therapy, meditate, or read books to help you develop the emotional self-soothing and realistic expectations that will help you develop the capacity. If I’m your therapist for individual or couples therapy, I can help with that.
8. No. Advocate for change. Be willing to take risks.
Okay, so there’s a gap here. You really believe that you need your partner to meet this need and you want to give them the chance to meet the relationship. You are willing to stay in the relationship for the time being while you give your partner and your relationship time to adapt in a way that will meet your needs. This is a real challenge because it means finding compassion for your partner while at least one of your relationship buckets is not being filled. As a therapist, I have a lot of respect for this decision, as a person who has been married for 17 years, I know how hard it can be to stand in this place. I try to help my clients who choose this path to turn up the volume of the emotional communication about why this need is so important and how it might be met. At the same time, I help them turn up that volume in a skillful way that is less likely to trigger conflicts, doesn’t require their partner to become someone or something they are not, and which also prevents the potential that this choice will lead to unmet needs that will become fuel for resentments.
This choice also means taking a risk. While the stance itself is a choice that you make to maintain the relationship, as you turn up the volume about your unmet need, you will likely be creating distress in your partner. That distress is the fuel for change and can be done compassionately, but it is still distress. So, as you have conversations about the unmet need, as you point out to your partner that the need is unmet and exactly how it feels, you may risk that even if you use skillful means they will create conflicts or decide that they won’t maintain the relationship because of how you have been telling them about your unmet need. This is the risk that you take when you decide to try to change your relationship so that it will meet your need. So, while this can be a reasonable choice, it is important that you acknowledge the limitations and risks inherent in this option.
9. No. So this is over.
In the end, if you find that you cannot let this need go, that it cannot be met or cannot be met enough by outside relationships, if you will not or cannot adapt enough to accept that your need is not being met, if you can’t advocate for change, have tried advocating for change but have spent all of your patience without enough encouraging progress, AND/OR you find that this need is so central to your relationship needs that it must be met and it doesn’t matter if the relationship meets other needs, then you may decide that you can let go of this relationship. If you’ve tried those things, maybe you can leave now confident that you considered all of the options and tried all that you were capable of to save the relationship.
Though presented in a sequential format that can encourage dichotomous thinking, I want to be clear that these options are not mutually exclusive. For example, it is perfectly possible that you decide to meet a part of the need outside of the relationship while you advocate for change, but find that you are emotionally withdrawing even though that wasn’t an option you want to choose. Take a look both at the options you have consciously chosen, but also those that seem to emerge from the nature of the interactions with your partner.
I hope that this tool helps you consider whether you want to enter or continue a relationship. And if it doesn’t, or if you need help enacting those choices more skillfully, therapy with me might help.
See also my previous blog post:
Do I Want to be in This Relationship: Part I